Japanese lanterns
Photo: Thinkstock
Japan is one country you can't do alone—everyone said so. You can't read street signs; you might get lost for days. You can't read menus; you could starve unless you want to point all the time. And the people are formal, even cold, I'd heard. It didn't sound like much fun, running around lost and hungry, pointing for cold people.

So although I was traveling solo to visit cousins in Hong Kong, I didn't consider adding an excursion to Japan. Then a friend, Jan, suggested joining me there for a week. Perfect!

Well, not exactly.

I had always traveled with people I knew well (mostly husbands, whom I was out of at the moment). Although Jan and I went way back, we hadn't lived in the same city in more than 20 years. Within days of arriving in Japan, we discovered our differences on just about everything. Our friendship exploded, and Jan announced she was going home. "Fine," I said tersely.

Two hours later, I was by myself in Kyoto, terrified. I sat in the hotel room trying not to panic. I thought about leaving, but—get all the way to Japan and not see it? I knew I had to conquer my acute shyness, which a shrink had told me years ago was "a luxury I could no longer afford." I'd worried that I wouldn't be able to think of anything to say to strangers. Here, all I could say was arigatou ("thank you") and hai (which means "yes," and a lot of other things I never quite figured out). How wrong could I go?

My first adventure was visiting a ryokan, a traditional inn. When I arrived, a lovely woman in a kimono bowed to me, letting me know she was my maid. My maid. "Your stay at a ryokan will be determined by how well you get along with your maid," the guidebook informed me.

She led me to an enchanting room: shoji screens, a single purple blossom in a turquoise vase, a low wooden table. She gestured that I was to sit down on the floor as she served tea and sweets. She also brought a menu (in English!) for the next morning's breakfast: orange juice, bacon, and eggs. At a ryokan? I consulted my phrase book: Wafuu—"Japanese style." "Japanese morning?" she asked, astonished. "Hai," I answered. She seemed pleased. I was succeeding with the maid. She showed me where my kimono was, pointed to a large wooden tub in the bathroom, and left.

I had expected from my reading to be guided through the bath, which was supposed to be communal, but apparently this ryokan worked on a privacy principle. Well, at least I wouldn't have to smile at naked people I couldn't talk to. I decided to do as the book instructed: I took a cold shower (to purify) and then soaked in the large cypress tub filled with scalding water ("to make the cares of the day melt away into a stupor"). Later the maid came back with an exquisite dinner. There were ten dishes of various shapes and sizes, not counting dipping sauces. The food was sensual as a still life. I recognized only a few things: One dish, I swear, contained mashed potatoes, but these were mashed potatoes for the gods. As I ate, I began to feel my fear melt away.

Next: Conquering her shyness once and for all
Next morning, I was trying to connect street signs to my map when a man stopped and asked in excellent English if he could help. "I'm trying to find Murin-an Gardens," I said. He said, "Murin-an—I've never been there. May I accompany you?" I felt awkward as we strolled along. Was he just being polite? Was he picking me up?

Turned out he wanted to practice his English and hear about America. When we left Murin-an, he said, "I admire the way you're traveling by yourself. Very interesting woman."

Energized, I divided the rest of my time in Kyoto between visiting gardens and getting lost (not without its own rewards). People were amazingly kind. As I stood baffled in front of train schedules I couldn't read, someone would always turn me in the right direction and show me how much change to put in the turnstile. Once, while a cop on a bicycle was giving me directions, it started to pour. Five minutes later, he caught up with me and handed me a plastic raincoat. So much for the cold Japanese.

Tokyo was a bigger challenge: It makes the New York subways at rush hour seem empty. Crowds push past you, smoking furiously, talking rapidly in—my God—Japanese. Ikebukero, the subway station nearest the hotel I was heading for, was so huge that it took me a full hour just to find my way out of it. After I got to my room, I carefully planned the last two days of my trip. The idea was: Stay close by. Get lost small.

Anonymity gave me freedom. When a headwaiter whom I'd asked for a table looked askance at my clothes, I realized that the New York principle of "black will take you anywhere" doesn't apply to a T-shirt and Reeboks. "This is a French restaurant, Madame," he said in English, implying that someone like me would be looking for something cheaper. "Bien sûr," I replied haughtily. I'd traveled from America to Tokyo—I could afford their damn lunch. Why didn't he assume I was rich and eccentric? I ordered a fine meal with excellent wine and began to feel rich and eccentric. I was seated by a window wall, through which I could see a waterfall and golden carp swimming. With my new attitude, I decided I would take a few photographs (maybe they'd think I was a photojournalist), and after a while, one of the waiters asked if I'd like him to take my picture. How about that? Total triumph.

Heading home, I realized that something had changed dramatically for me. I felt calmer and more confident. When I'm confronted with mundane terrors now, a little voice inside whispers: "What do you mean you're afraid? You spent a week alone in Japan." Who knows where I might go next?

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